Merriam-Webster defines ambidextrous as
Let us compare a soccer player who is one-dimensional (either right or left footed) to one who is ambidextrous and can dribble with both feet. The latter leaves the defenders guessing as to what his next move is, or what direction he might be heading to next. The former is very predictable, and generally will lose possession of the ball very quickly. I was that player for many years, until I finally learned how to manage the ball with both feet.
I have to say that I have never driven a race car, but I can imagine an F1 driver trying to catch up with the pole leader, or one attempting to create some distance from his next follower. Such distances are not generally made up in straight-aways, but instead in turns, where you are most likely to outmaneuver the others. It is after all in tight corners where strategies and skill will shine, and where you separate the pretenders from the real winners. Tight, busy turns create opportunities for a driver to make up ground. similarly, a crisis is an opportunity for a leader of company to distinguish his company form the others. A good crisis should never go by the wayside.
What’s with the sports analogies, you might say…Think of a company CEO or division manager who can only focus on the task at hand. That is the equivalence of the one-dimensional soccer player, or the race car driver who can only pass on the straight- aways. They rarely accomplish their objectives. Instead, what is needed is a leader who can think beyond the goal at hand. Strategies have a shelf life that is determined by either a product life cycle, pricing, or competition ( supplanted by a more effective strategy). A leader who fails to recognize the difference between flexibility and firmness, cohesiveness and autonomy, and alignment and adaptability will fail in his or her duties to lead. This is the one-dimensional soccer player.
It is this juggling act that I refer to as ambidextrous leadership- the ability to manage effectively today, while planning and rehearsing the future. As my soccer carrer was short, so will yours as a one-dimensional leader.
In sports, as in the corporate world we live in, what makes good coaches great is the belief that special situations will arise in every game. And unless you anticipate these special cases and prepare for them, you will leave yourself unprepared and unable to take advantage of them, or worse, recognize them as they come about. Practicing the future is an essential duty of every leader. Run your company today as today’s customer requires, with an eye on the future. Ask Steve Jobs the CEO of Apple or any of the departed big three auto makers CEOs what they think of this. Play out the various scenarios and develop contingency plans accordingly. As anyone who has spent any time in the military will tell you – Generals who do not play war games and adopt to future technologies, will be sitting ducks when real bullets start flying.
An ambidextrous leader is the equivalent of a coach who will enter a game with more than one strategy at hand. For example, he can devise a game that features more offense than defense. Or, he can set up plays that anticipate the opposition tactics and attack their weaknesses. A company president who ventures in to new territories anticipating all kinds of obstacles ( market, culture, prices, competition, etc…) and different strategies to match (well prepared and rehearsed, for each scenario that might appear unexpectedly), will undoubtedly succeed. On a personal note, after my first visit to the MENA region and several meetings with potential customers, I realized that some of what I had learnt in the “streets” in North America, and in the class room at Harvard was of little use to me. Instead, I hurriedly, sought to devise different scenarios to accomplish my goals and overcome the many obstacles I met. Our company is more nimble today, and is in a more advantageous position to anticipate the markets and the customers’ needs. We can certainly help shape the future of our industry, instead of reacting to exogenous market conditions dictated by other factors or players.
Out of the ability to “juggle” with both feet, or hands in the case of some of my American born friends:), is born adaptability to current and future economic and market conditions.
In his new book Outrunning Change, Gary Hamel defines an adaptable company as “… one that captures more than its fair share of new opportunities”. I think of it more as, an organization that is constantly seeking new horizons. One that is always redefining its core business in ways that identifies new markets. Our company has recently ventured in to new territories in the MENA and South East Asia regions seeking such opportunities. To do this successfully, we needed leadership and management that recognize this essential need, brought about by market contraction and evaporating liquidity; forcing organizations to adjust to new price equilibriums- famous in microeconomic theories of perfect competition and zero profits.